Soviet Concepts and Capabilities for Limited Nuclear War

What We Know and How We Know It

by Edward L. Warner


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This Note analyzes the evolution of Soviet concepts of and capabilities for limited nuclear war, Western assessments of these concepts and capabilities, and the basis on which the assessments were made. It covers the period from 1954, when the Soviets first began to adapt their military strategy to the nuclear age, to the present. Soviet doctrinal commentary indicates an interest in limiting nuclear use for various military and political reasons; yet the Soviets reject the idea that nuclear war could be fought in a highly limited manner. In addition, their operational doctrine retains a strong preemptive predisposition, particularly with regard to war in Europe, where they are determined to be the first to use nuclear weapons with a potentially decisive military effect. However, given their nuclear strike capabilities and command-and-control arrangements that provide tight control over initial nuclear release, the Soviets could employ their nuclear attack forces with a wide range of self-imposed constraints.

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